I shoot better zoo photography (and you can too!)

I run the London Zoo photography workshops, and have done for (checks) almost a decade.

Crikey.

In that time I've met hundreds of people, answered thousands of questions and shared – this learning process is a two-way thing, you see – loads of tips. One of my favourite jobs is the occasional request from ZSL itself to help it keep its stack of animal photography updated. These images are licensed very widely, allowing ZSL to use my images for PR, in advertisements and on large scale displays.

They're enjoyable little jobs – a few days at a time, in places I know well, practising what I preach. They're also more or less the only times I end up carrying photographic kit around either zoo – I gave up doing it on workshops because a) I didn't end up taking that many useful pictures and b) my back started killing me. I particularly enjoy getting a bit more backstage access than I get on workshops, which gives me the opportunity to set up wireless flashes and things like that.

 Weeee! Canon 5D III, PocketWizard, Canon Speedlite, brolly. Although using lights does mean you need a spotter; I don't need to hear my insurer laughing when I tell them a monkey broke my flash.

Weeee! Canon 5D III, PocketWizard, Canon Speedlite, brolly. Although using lights does mean you need a spotter; I don't need to hear my insurer laughing when I tell them a monkey broke my flash.

If you're heading to London Zoo and want to do a nice job photographing it, let me help. Here are a few tricks and tips to send you on your way.

Use the right kit

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It's easy (and discouraging!) to tell people to just use gigantic lenses, which is why I don't do it. Paul Goldstein, over at Exodus Travels, says the best wildlife photography is shot with either very long or very wide lenses, and I think he's right. For this marvellous ring-tailed lemur, I brought a 500mm prime, only to spend most of my time struggling to stay far enough back from my subjects for it to work properly. Switching to a 24-105mm and finding a good spot solved it: the iffy background and light here really don't matter – this frame is all about the immediacy of the subject, its attentive, curious pose, and the detail in its fur and paws. Sure, figure out how to use big primes, but don't let that become an obsession.

Don't be afraid of ISO

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If you absolutely must use that 500mm prime, stick in a big pile of ISO and use a sensible shutter speed. Noisy images are better than blurry ones.

Get up to the glass

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The fundamentals of shooting in a zoo are the same as everywhere else: positioning and craftiness is everything, and dodgy snappers will get better shots than talented ones if they can figure out (or fluke) the best place to stand.

For glass, your best approach is to be as near to it, with your lens as perpendicular to it, as possible. The further back you are, and the more of an angle you're at, the tougher the glass is going to make things. Best case scenario: hazy, washed-out shots. Worst case: a mime wearing a high-contrast black and white striped shirt appears in all your shots.

Mind your backgrounds

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Oh god. Here's the beauty of shooting in natural habitat (fine, here's the whole list: it's exciting, the food's awesome, you meet cool people, the weather's more interesting, you get to go on a PLANE, the wildlife is more diverse and surprising, and the beer's cheaper): backgrounds are easy. Unless you're in an especially busy patch of the Masai Mara, or, like me a few years ago, you're in one of 40 Jeeps watching a Bengal tiger cross the road, you'll almost never have anything man-made in your background, which gives you loads of freedom of composition.

Zoos, not so much. London Zoo stands out in particular – I really like running workshops there because you have to work really, really hard to produce clean-looking images. A very long lens, with concomitantly tight depth-of-field, helps, but even then you can't rely on bokeh to sort you out. So be a background-watcher: it almost doesn't matter how good your foreground and subject are if the background's distracting. The Giraffe House, which I love to hit on my London Zoo workshops, is particularly good for this: from a few places, such as the angle above, backgrounds look absolutely sensational (if you can meter them right). From virtually every other angle: disaster. It's a great learning environment.

Come on a workshop

 Come on a workshop, get menaced by a monkey

Come on a workshop, get menaced by a monkey

Hear me out, hear me out. Workshops (and not just mine, either, there are plenty of other good folks running excellent wildlife photography workshops and courses in the UK) are an amazing way of figuring your camera out. Too scared to start using manual modes in real-life situations? Having a photographer nearby is a great way of getting over the first hurdle. I also really enjoy giving real-time feedback on the images people shoot – I've sold enough wildlife pics to be able to be able to help out with all kinds of stuff, from big-picture things like exposure and focus, to the minutiae of composition. If you'd like to come and learn how to take better pictures, hear a frankly exhausting amount of animal puns and come away with a travel wishlist as long as your arm, hit us up at ZSL.